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Drought takes toll on southern tea output

Deeptha Rajkumar

Wellington (Nilgiris) , March 14

A DROUGHT-LIKE condition in almost every plantation-growing district in the South is beginning to take its toll on tea production. So much so, that South Indian production for March and most probably April is likely to remain depressed, feel experts.

Dr N. Muraleedharan, Director, Upasi Tea Research Foundation (TRF), told Business Line that if there were no relief showers over the next couple of weeks, the damage would be irreversible.

``The March crop will be low and if there are no showers in March, then the April crop too will be impacted adversely. The symptoms of wilting and drying of bushes is evident everywhere. The drought-like conditions are particularly evident in the areas of Vandiperiyar, Valparai, Gudulur, Munnar,'' he added.

Officials maintain that the incidence of frost particularly in areas like Munnar early this year had already affected production in around 600-odd hectares.

The combination of high temperature, low humidity in particular is said to be harming the tea crop. ``The relative humidity is very low, 25-40 per cent. This is taking the moisture away from the atmosphere and away from the plants,'' says Dr N. Muraleedharan.

In fact, the dry weather in February had also resulted in the build up of red spider mites. Red spider mite affects green leaf and the maintenance foliage which sustain the health of the bush. Once the maintenance load gets affected by mites, it leads to a decline in the health of the bush thereby bringing down production.

``However, the build up was brought down significantly in March due to further loss of moisture and dry weather,'' Upasi officials added.

Upasi officials believe that the deterioration in crop or production levels due to climatic conditions could have been marginalised if the estates had followed the protective measures recommended by Upasi TRF.

There is a perception that the shade pattern and maintenance of foliage has come down drastically. Maintenance foliage provides an additional protective barrier which prevents shedding of leaf. ``Insufficient number of shade trees and the number of leaves added (a cushioning tier) during January, February and March have come down significantly. Most estates appear to have abandoned this practice and have been going in for continuous sheering,'' says Dr Muraleedharan.

As an immediate protective measure, the Upasi TRF has also recommended spraying of urea, muriate of potash which will prevent water loss from plants.

``There are other anti-transpirants available in the market but these are much more expensive than the MOP-Urea combination. We have also recommended spraying of kaolin for young plants,'' he added.

According to Upasi data, southern region tea output during January was 11.2 mkg as against 11.7 mkg in January 2003. For February, it is estimated that the production could be around 10.4 mkg (10.8 mkg) (s in the corresponding period last year. However, the total South India production in 2003 was lower by 1 mkg in comparison to the year 2002.

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